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A Summer of Make-Up Memorials

By Posted on 20 4 m read 5.9K views

How is your summer going? Are you stepping back into the world?

Art by Chloe Cushman for the New York Times.

My summer has been one of make-up memorials for loved ones lost during the pandemic. Only now have we been able to gather and celebrate their lives.

Last month, in Virginia, I attended a memorial for someone I babysat for many years. I started working for her family when I was in middle school. When she turned four and I was, I guess, fourteen, she developed a brain tumor. Her whole family is terribly important to me, and I wrote about them here. Later this month, we’ll be in Pennsylvania to celebrate the life of Mr. H’s college roommate and to spend time with folx we love dearly. And I have just returned from a trip to our family cemetery in Montana, where we finally buried my father. Can’t tell you how badly I needed hugs and time with people I love.

Those of you who know me or have read The Flicker of Old Dreams know our family does old-school burials. I posted more Montana photos here (let me know if you need help getting past my privacy filters).

Other than these memorials, I’ve ventured out only a little. My first outings were for the Pfizer vaccination and a proper haircut. I quickly visited my mom, my kids, and a few friends. I started going to the grocery store again instead of ordering from Instacart, and was surprised how much that simple act revitalized my creativity. There’s something about spontaneity, chance encounters, or maybe even the shapes and smells and colors in the produce aisle that awoke my senses and my desire to write.

But re-entering the world hasn’t felt as natural as I’d hoped. On a purely physical level, my feet—after a year and a half without shoes—are rebelling with blisters. And while I’ve gone to a restaurant here and there, I find it stressful relying on others to keep an environment safe.

I’m way behind on sharing writing news. Grateful to The National Book Review for publishing my interview with the brilliant Marcia Butler. It was an honor to judge the High Plains Book Award for Fiction, which I awarded to Joe Wilkins for his extraordinary novel, Fall Back Down When I Die. I taught virtual workshops for Hampton Roads Convergence of Writers, 14:55 Literary Arts, and the Brandeis National Committee. And, soon, I’ll be offering private consultations through the Community of Writers.

What else? I did readings and panels with so many amazing writers, including Jennifer Haupt, Steve Yarbrough, Richard Blanco, Ada Limón, Pam Houston, Gina Frangello, Stephen P. Kiernan, Susan Rich, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, Ron Block, Caroline Leavitt, Ruben Quesada, Anna Quinn, Kristen Millares Young, and Dawn Raffel. Oh… thank you to Joan Frank at The Washington Post for mentioning my contribution to the Alone Together anthology. A big hurrah to the narrators of the Alone Together audiobook for winning the Independent Audiobook Award for Nonfiction. I’m grateful to One Book Billings for choosing The Flicker of Old Dreams to read city-wide this fall. And thank you to 14:55’s Executive Director, Sean Murphy, for this interview, which was lots of fun:

As always, I’ll end by sharing the books I’ve read since my last post:

Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
Emily St. John Mandel, The Glass Hotel
Claudia Rankine, Just Us
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming
Charlie Mackesy, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic
Mary Karr, The Liar’s Club
Tosca Lee, The Line Between
Luis Alberto Urrea, The Devil’s Highway
Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Joe Wilkins, Fall Back Down When I Die
Margaret Renkl, Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss
Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad
Tea Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife
Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles
Therese Anne Fowler, A Good Neighborhood
Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories
TaraShea Nesbit, The Wives of Los Alamos
Aimee Bender, Willful Creatures
Gina Frangello, Blow Your House Down
Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet
Jessica Anya Blau, Mary Jane
Nedra Glover Tawwab, Set Boundaries, Find Peace
Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides
Ellen Meister, The Rooftop Party
Herman Melville, Moby Dick; or, The Whale
Leslie Lehr, A Boob’s Life: How America’s Obsession Shaped Me … and You
Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds
Walter Mosely, Devil in the Blue Dress
Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain
Anita Diamant, The Red Tent
Salman Rushdie, The Golden House
Christina Baker Kline, The Exiles
Sophie Mackintosh, The Water Cure
Christina Baker Kline, A Piece of the World
Noel Obiora, A Past That Breathes
Garth Greenwell, Cleanness
Hannah Pittard, The Fates Will Find Their Way
Amy Ellis Nutt, Becoming Nicole
Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being
Tamara Winfrey Harris, The Sisters Are Alright
Kate Bernheimer, Horse, Flower, Bird
Marcia Butler, Oslo, Maine
Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing
Amanda Stern, Little Panic
Clare Pooley, The Authenticity Project
Jodi Picoult, House Rules
Jacqueline Woodson, Red at the Bone
Edith Wharton, House of Mirth
Paul Auster (graphic novel adaptation by Paul Karasik & David Mazzucchelli), City of Glass
Cynthia Ozick, “The Shawl”
Rebecca Curtis, “Hansa and Gretyl and Piece of Shit”
Stuart Dybek, “We Didn’t”

A couple books I read for a second or third time…
Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye


Say hello in the comments section. Would love to hear about your summer and how you’re transitioning out of pandemic-mode.

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  • Paul Cunningham
    August 9, 2021

    Totally with you on the ‘lift’, Sue. Loved the interview. And Funkadelic, just Funkadelic.


    • Susan Henderson
      August 9, 2021

      Awww, thanks for watching the interview, Paul. Glad you’re here!

  • Maury Feinsilber
    August 9, 2021

    It’s always revitalizing for me when I read these remarkable blogposts that you write and this, again, was no exception and, given the subject matter of life and death and departures and reunions (even/especially the kind of reconnection you experienced with your ((abundant)) innate creativity), once again I’m a little more awake having read your words (and, too, word, ‘folx’ being a new one whose definition I’m richer for learning).

    One thing we share in common in a sort of slipstream between reading books and, through the often astounding medium of the audiobook, having them aurally implanted into our consciousness. On your list, one that came to life for me in a profound way was THE SHAWL; conversely, one that I listened to last summer after having read the book the previous summer — ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE — while being well read/performed, was still nowhere near as profound an experience than I had with the physical book.

    Finally, what a delightful thing it is to think of so many people simultaneously reading THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS. Sometimes, some things just make sense in the best way possible.

    • Susan Henderson
      August 9, 2021

      Yeah, I think the thing I learned about myself during the pandemic is how much I need accidents in my life in order to feel creative. You schedule a Zoom meeting and you stay on topic, or you’re only allowed to listen and not interject. You order from Instacart and you stick to your list. But the best things that happen to us are often the people or events that pull us away from our plans and into something unexpected or uncomfortable. I missed that, right down to the fruits and vegetables I forgot all about when I just ordered from a list or from memory.

      You were the one who put The Shawl on my radar! I like that you gravitate toward both physical books and audiobooks. I just listened to The Graveyard Book, which I’d read before, but it’s way better when Neil Gaiman reads it to you.

      • Maury Feinsilber
        August 9, 2021

        Re. fruits: within seconds of the first time I’d exited the Metro and onto a Paris street I started bawling. Why? The way the lemons were arranged on a cart. It’s probably a good idea for everyone on planet Earth to reread Emily’s words when she briefly revisits life in OUR TOWN. And yes, surely when we’re writing probably the best work that gets done is when we’re suddenly uncomfortable. Serendipity has many faces I suppose.

        • Susan Henderson
          August 9, 2021

          Wild that you mentioned OUR TOWN because I just watched the 1940 version this week. Love that an arrangement of lemons made you weep!

  • Ellen Meister
    August 9, 2021

    Now I’m obsessing on the idea that you went shoeless for nearly the whole lockdown!

    So was that your first reading of Moby Dick? What did you think? I haven’t read it since college and often consider giving it another shot.

    • Susan Henderson
      August 9, 2021

      You wore shoes during the pandemic? I stayed in bare feet or slippers. David and I both wore out a pair of slippers and had to replace them. And these are slippers with hard bottoms.

      In the 1455 interview I posted, Sean Murphy challenged me to give Moby Dick another try. I was assigned it in middle school, and I was an unwilling participant. I’m also guessing it was an abridged version so, for lots of reasons, I don’t count that as a proper reading. What pushed the book up in my stack was an article a few months later by Jill Bialosky, a poet I love.

      Honestly I loved her discussion of it more than the book itself. I knew I’d have to set aside Melville’s thoughts on ‘savages.’ And I jotted down lines here and there that stopped me in my tracks–seems like many of them had to do with delights and secrets. I’ve lost the list. In the end, it felt like the starts and fits and potential of an early draft. Like, if he’d sat with the material longer, he’d have gone deeper and found a better shape for the story.

  • Gerard Smith
    August 9, 2021

    I’m sorry that you lost friends and family to COVID. We’ve been lucky so far.

    I read Moby Dick sixty five or more years ago. I liked it then. I wonder how I’d react if I reread the book?

    I’m a slipper guy but Mimi has been barefoot as long as I’ve known her and I suppose longer. Funny thing is that she owns more pairs of shoes than Bud Schulberg’s Sammy Glick.

    Keep reading. Keep writing. Keep well.

  • Marilyn
    August 12, 2021

    Hi, Sue…did a lot of catching up this evening. Read this post, the one from over a year ago, and most of the comments. Much has happened since then. Much is different. But, here we are again in the midst of a surge of a Covid variant. Fortunately, my beautiful 94-year old Aunt Lucy who got Covid earlier this year, after eight days in the hospital, was sent home and back to her usual energetic self! Amazing, isn’t it? I am so thankful for that. Haven’t seen her in too long, but we talk a lot on the phone.

    The photos from your dad’s burial are so striking and beautiful, so different in their humanity. I hope I’m expressing what I mean to say correctly. Seeing the family taking it upon themselves to lay your dad to rest shows so much caring. It was truly beautiful. Again, I am so sorry for his loss to you and to the family. Hope your mom is doing okay.

    As usual, your list of books read blows me away. 🙂 My reading has been about “time,” about the brain, about art, and robotics, especially androids. Mostly research, in short bursts, but enjoying it. And have spent some time helping Keith with his new project. Speak of blowing my mind! He’s co-producing techno, and in less than three months has an ep signed with a major German techno label being released September 3rd (I named it! Ha!). He has his own record label for his own releases, designs his covers and has done his own marketing! Is on Spotify, Bandcamp, and has a YouTube artist channel, which he is in the process of setting up. Out of the blue. I am beyond amazed! These Brits! Right?

    Hope your book is going well in your new workspace! Enjoyed the interview a lot! But I think it went over the 15 minutes! :))

  • Susan Henderson
    August 12, 2021

    So glad to hear about Aunt Lucy! And thank you for your words about my dad and our weird family traditions. Life is precious. We are heading to another memorial this weekend and a very good family friend just went into hospice care. Another reminder to not take our time on earth for granted.

    You’ve intrigued me with your research books! Androids and the brain? Keep going… this is so you! Also, trust the short bursts, trust your pace and your process.

    Can you link Keith’s YouTube channel here? I want to see, and I’ll bet I’m not the only one!

    • Marilyn
      August 13, 2021

      Hi! Thanks for your interest, Sue. He finished uploading at an ungodly hour. Here’s the link. It seems I get it differently because I don’t have the app. So this is his playlist, not the landing artist page (with this really cool pic of him :)), I’ll have to get the app now. I haven’t been able to like anything on YouTube for a while. I can’t sign in to my account. Anyway, he’s into acid techno, some of it hard acid. Not everyone’s cup of tea. :))

      • Susan Henderson
        August 16, 2021

        Ha! That was quite the wake-up pill this morning! So fun to know he has this surprise side to his personality. 🙂

  • Billie Hinton
    August 13, 2021

    Oh, so nice to read a new post from you. I’m getting out more than I had been, but remaining very cautious due to a very special March event that made me a grandmother! 🙂 His name is Will and he’s pretty amazing. Since he cannot be vaccinated yet, we’re all vaccinated, all still masking if out and about, and all still doing mostly curbside shopping. I have taken three small trips by car but otherwise not traveling yet. Staying busy with horses, cats, dogs, honeybees, gardens, writing, reading. Just finished the 8th session of a series of 6-week online writing workshops that have really kept me going during the pandemic. Re: Moby Dick – have you read Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund? It’s amazing.

    • Susan Henderson
      August 13, 2021

      Congratulations! How wonderful you Will has joined the family and you’re all working to keep him safe! Your animals and gardens must keep you so grounded when the world is crazy. I’m adding Ahab’s Wife to my list!

  • Ric Marion
    September 2, 2021

    What a welcome surprise this morning. Summer going amazingly well. Since both my wife and my livelihood are linked to restaurants, it has been a long journey back to normal. Still not sure we’ve made it. Managed to get family together, hugs are definitely underrated. Trying to stay sane amidst the ravages of this pandemic, out here in the hinterland where Trump Flags are everywhere and getting vaccinated is akin to accepting the Mark of the Beast.
    So, a lot of non-fiction reading, which is a change for me. Research on The Swamp Fox, General Francis Marion, who is a relative, trying to determine just how close. A fascinating delve into the sinking of the USS Leopold, a Coast Guard vessel in WW2. My uncle and namesake was a survivor and, it appears, was awarded a Purple Heart 18 years after his death. So, attempting to get it for me and my namesake son.
    Mostly, though, as usual, watching the nature in and about the yard. Have some twenty deer who traverse the property, morning and night. Have two sets of Baltimore Orioles, Orange and Black against the blue Michigan sky. Something new this year, a pair of Bald Eagles have taken up residence on a nearby lake. They fly over close to the ground, not often, but, still, a magnificent sight.
    Losing friends and acquaintances to covid and old age. Coffee shop just not the same – once we could actually go back for morning brew. My Grandfather always said the worst thing about growing old was all of your friends died first. He was a very wise man but knowing that does not make it any easier when it happens.
    Writers Circle back on after 15 months off. Still not writing as much as I should or could be.
    And fall is shaping up to be busy as well. Just September holds a trip to the UP of Michigan for a memorial, an engagement party for my youngest son, our 16th Annual Wine Tasting trip to Traverse City – albeit minus one member. (a very close friend).
    Life is good. I wake each morning to the sound of my river bubbling over rocks, bills are paid, sun is shining, everyone healthy and happy.
    BTW, I am still having issues wearing shoes for any length of time…..

    • Susan Henderson
      September 5, 2021

      So glad to hear from you, and love that you’re catching up on all the hugs you’ve missed!

      Wow, about the bald eagles! We have been hearing an owl on our property this summer– first time in our 20 years in this house, and we’re still trying to lay eyes on him.

      Glad your writer’s group is back on. Are you writing a book that touches on that Purple Heart relative? I’d love to hear more, if you want to share.

      I’m fascinated by shifts in reading preferences. I read a really good non-fiction book recently on The Titanic — Walter Lord, A Night to Remember. I think it was written in the 1950’s and I have no idea what rabbit hole I was down that got it on my radar, especially since I’m not particularly interested in The Titanic. But it was riveting, and I love how he used all the old ship logs and interviews to build the story without slowing it down with trivia. My longstanding favorite non-fiction book is Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City. It’s set in the Chicago World Fair and alternates chapters between a serial killer and the race for architects to build the fair on time. Who knew the architect chapters would be so compelling!

      My summer and early fall are/have all been about moving my mom to NY. Since my dad died, she’s just all alone in DC, and my traveling back and forth has wreaked havoc on my career and home life. Hopefully we’ll get her settled in up here in the next couple of weeks.

      Congratulation on your youngest’s engagement, and so glad you stopped by!

      • Ric Marion
        September 17, 2021

        Susan, Had to dig a little, the same time I got Devil in the White City – which is really good, I agree, I also got Loving Frank by Nancy Horan – about Frank Lloyd Wright’s nearly career ending affair with the love of his life. Absolutely fascinating how different public life was not that long ago.
        Glad Mom is closer, though I know what a strain aging lonely parents can be on one’s life. As to the Purple Heart, I really don’t do military stuff – has to do with Viet-Nam and being 1-A in 1969. Some day, I’ll write THAT story.
        Be well, Hope to see you back here soon.

        • Susan Henderson
          September 27, 2021

          My mom and her cat are finally here! It’s kind of a monster task trying to sift through 50 years of life in one house and downsize to fit a 2-BR apartment. But I love how it looks, pared down to just the things she loves. And I see her lots, which is a nice change!

          The FL Wright book sounds good. And I hope you write that Viet-Nam story one day!

Susan Henderson